Scotland: The bemoaning of public transport deficiencies, icy fingers of blame pointing from the Queensferry Crossing to Holyrood and squabbles surrounding the A9 dualling project are jam-packed with heartfelt arguments, pressing dilemmas and political agendas. Anguished cries of “more roads mean more traffic” are countered with the economic imperatives of moving people and goods from A to B.
This is set against the backdrop of government policies north and south of the border aimed at shifting our focus from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles, sparking alarm among consumers worried about everything from charging points to residual values.
Whether you live in Scotland or not, whether you know that the Queensferry Crossing is a £1.35 billion bridge, despite the name, and even if you have no idea where the A9 is, the wailing and gnashing of teeth surrounding transport infrastructure is broadly the same around the world.
All of these positions have merit. All of them correctly reference current realities. But the outrage repeatedly sets short-sighted crosshairs on long-range targets. Yes, the volume of car traffic on the Queensferry Crossing has increased, while the number of buses and taxis using the old bridge remains a trickle. What did you expect? That we were all going to abandon our cars and throng onto the magically improved bus and train services in the space of a year or two? Seriously?
Sorting out our mobility infrastructure takes far more than one bridge and some additional bus services. It also doesn’t require a moratorium on road building. Buses, taxis and all other efficient, multi-occupancy vehicles that don’t run on rails need roads, too. Our future mobility must provide a flexible multiplicity of sustainable options, and we, as consumers must radically change our attitudes to mobility for that to happen.
The problem is that we are wedded to the glorious convenience of the privately owned automobile. Despite the enormous dent it makes in our household budgets, the deaths caused by road traffic crashes and air pollution, the damage to the environment and the crushing slog of the rush hour(s), we remain trapped in its thrall.
And I speak as someone who has earned a living in the automotive sector all her professional life; someone who has relished driving cars far more powerful and expensive than could possibly be justified in the interests of mere transportation.
Our relationship with the car has borne great fruit in terms of the individual freedom it affords, but it has come at an unspeakably steep price. We need to address that with a mainstream discourse that is a lot more nuanced and far-sighted than “stop building roads and improve public transport”. And, as motorists, we need to admit to ourselves and others that the failings of public transport is a convenient smoke screen of denial thrown up to mask the truth that no bus or train service can ever, ever compete with the magnetic appeal of the metal money-pit on wheels beckoning from the driveway with promises to do our bidding anytime day or night. Like the frog in the proverbial pot of water, the motorist is remarkably resilient when it comes to accommodating the ever-escalating cost and inconvenience of sustaining this ultimately damaging love affair.
And that’s not a trait particular to Scotland or the UK. For instance, most German cities have excellent and affordable public transport infrastructures (well, far better than ours, at least). But its cities and autobahns remain gridlocked, while its politicians attempt to juggle the incompatibility between the country’s mighty car-making industry and its own environmental commitments.
Having dragged their heels for long enough, car manufacturers (in Germany and elsewhere) are finally being driven to act by a mixture of legislation and competitive pressure from interlopers like Tesla, not to mention their own misdeeds. Many already have substantial pipelines of electrified vehicles and some have even consigned their beloved internal combustion engines to the history books. However, even they are aware that simply switching gas-guzzlers for plug-ins won’t cut it.
They are grappling with the existential dilemma of actually reducing the size of the overall vehicle fleet – which means building fewer vehicles. They are furiously reinventing themselves as “providers of mobility solutions”, which involves rethinking completely how they and their massive manufacturing networks, employing hundreds of thousands of people, fit into the equation. They will not relinquish their brands, built over many decades, without a fight.
For our part, as a society of consumers, we need to look beyond the mindset of private car versus public transport and learn to share. It won’t be as easy or convenient as the car ownership model, which, let’s face it, has only really been a thing for the last 70 years or so. But sharing will reduce the number of single-occupancy journeys and, as a consequence, congestion and the surface area covered by parked cars. Most cars spend more than 95 percent of their time standing still, doing nothing but occupying space and getting in the way.
One of the many Utopian pictures of the future being painted by the industry right now is of highly flexible, multi-occupancy vehicles at our beck and call. We would tell Alexa or some other voice assistant that we want to head into town, and an intelligent, interconnected system will direct the nearest shared robo-taxi to a convenient pick-up point to scoop us into its welcoming arms – most likely with an irritatingly friendly personalised greeting – before continuing on its way along open roads to a gloriously efficient transportation hub for the onward journey – by train, tram, bus or whatever.
However, there exists a humongous chasm between that vision and the current realities of everyday life. We NEED the drop-of-a-hat availability of our personal conveyance, even if parking it is a royal pain. We have NO CHOICE but to be taxi drivers to our children, despite the fact it is extremely poor use of our limited time. We WANT the personal sanctuary of our own private transport space, even if it costs a fortune. We LOVE the performance of its perfectly tuned engine, although it spends most of its time trapped in traffic. As consumers, however, we need to be part of the answer instead of part of the problem. We need to stop wanting to have our cake and eat it. We apparently want clean air and uncongested roads but seem steadfastly reluctant to make the changes necessary to achieve it.
We need to make clear to our elected officials that this is a priority, that we are prepared to wean ourselves off our car habit and that they have to help us do it. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a struggle fraught with doubt and temptation. At the same time, we need to cut through the colossal volumes of brand messaging generated by car makers to see that what we are spending our hard-earned money on is not a status symbol, a fashion accessory or an expression of individuality. It won’t make us more powerful, more attractive to the opposite sex or better parents. It is a means of transportation – pure and simple. It will continue to have a place in our lives and in society, but on a very different basis.
We absolutely have to end our damaging love affair with the automobile, and reach a healthier and more sustainable place of being just friends.
Photo credit: Transport Scotland